After teaching in one form or the other for about twenty years, you tend to begin to recognize patterns. Every kid is different, just like every star is unique or every molecule of snow. But they tend to rhyme with each other, and thus, there are profiles of kids that I see come up over and over again. Here are the four that I’ve seen most frequently:
1. Intelligent but Disorganized: Here’s the kid that we can quickly all recognize. He skates into class a few minutes late talking, smiling, a little charismatic. He digs through his backpack for last night’s homework, a smattering of loose leaf papers with very little attempts to organize it. She’s actually got a reasonable grade in the class, but only by cramming for the quizzes and exams at the last minute, the night before, or even before class, and tends to nail it… most of the time. Unless of course, the quiz is slightly off of expectation, or she didn’t sleep well last night. Disaster strikes the unprepared, as they say. She leverages her relationship with the teacher and gets by on charm.
Best support: Early in my career I came down a bit hard on this type of student, especially because it reminded me of what I had been for much of my academic career. But I quickly realized that a harsh hand did very little to help them grow, or even to realize the approaches they were taking were flawed. Inviting them into the conversation with positivity and appreciation of their positive qualities, and then subtly introducing executive function to them is the ticket. If they respect you and look up to you, they are 1,000 times more willing to adopt the strategies you’re selling them.
2. Type A Organization, but a Concrete thinker: This kid, at her best, has sticky tabs on her books, four different colors of highlighters and a meticulously organized planner. She listens attentively in class and completes assignments on time (the lesser version of these students do not necessarily come as well organized). The issue comes when they must think creatively beyond what the textbook suggests or beyond the concrete and factual.
Best Support: Strangely enough, creativity can actually be taught. If we take writing as an example, concrete thinkers struggle to see beyond the surface level of a text: what is simply reported by the narrative: the story. But if you provide her a set of tools to examine connotative/denotative definitions, metaphors, tone, etc. and teach him how to use those tools to examine a text, they can develop a multi-layered understanding of a text, and of the world by extension.
3. Pretty much Brilliant, but slowed (or even stopped) by Perfectionism: I work with quite a few of these types. The intellect is so finely tuned that it must get the assignment correct, not just good enough but meeting all of the expectations of an assignment with no exceptions. It’s problematic in its worst form when this missive prevents the student from even beginning an assignment, knowing the difficulty of the process of completing a perfect product. It can be quite crippling.
Best Support: Intuitively, one would see this type of student, and try to preach “great is the enemy of good enough.” That’s sensible enough logic, but it comes across as hollow and lacking in understanding to a student who has been hammered with the need for excellence over the entire course of their lives. They are typically sensitive, so every time they heard a parent or a teacher or a coach say, “this assignment has to be done this way, give it your all,” they took it beyond seriously. An enormous, life-long series of these directives has led to a morass of meta-cognitive reflection. If you say, “just ignore that, get it done well enough,” you’ve asked them to ignore those thousand voices. Good luck with that. The medicine for these folks is copious and genuine positive reinforcement. “This thesis statement is excellent: really creative thinking on the symbolic significance of color in Fitzgerald.” Every time they are given these, sincerely, genuinely (key), it relaxes one of those chords in their body wracking them inside. Enough of these, felt truly, can eventually get them off their own self-created operating table.
4. Creative and capable of Excellence, but lacking in innate motivation: This student typically marches to the beat of their own drummer. He vacillates between intensely interested and engaged and daydreamy and checked out. She don’t necessarily do all of her homework but she’s sharp enough to get by on what she has done, and when exams or papers comes up, she tends to crank it up.
Best Support: There tends to be huge upside with this type of student. When they’re on their game, no one submits better work. Their disconnect tends to occur because they are not being challenged by the current topic at hand, or they don’t see the purpose of doing it and consider it trivial. They do need a little of the proverbial ‘kick in the pants,’ so to speak to jolt them back into the moment at times, though this must be done respectfully and with understanding. What they really require from a broader perspective is novel challenge. Assignments that offer liberty to pursue alternate angles or extra credit options. They also do need clearly delineated boundaries and well-understood and practiced repercussions for when they drift outside of these bounds. While I’d consider this type the most challenging, they also are the most rewarding.
Conclusions: It’s important to reflect on the type of student you’re dealing with as a parent. Most parents know their young student very well, but haven’t taken a critical look at the best way to support them, or have done so hastily and made some specious conclusions based on their own historical experience. With the clutter and inevitable baggage of any parent/child relationship, it’s important to reflect on these issues dispassionately and seek objective perspectives to fully support the unique challenges that face their young students.